University of Rochester

Teen Angst?

Adolescents are not as inscrutable as many parents think, says Judith Smetana, a field-leading Rochester psychology professor.
By Hilary Appelman

INSCRUTABLE? Rochester psychology professor Judith Smetana, shown here having fun with her son, Jeremy Wood, says many factors influence parent-teen relationships, but establishing a trusting, supportive environment is key.

Adolescence. Just the word is enough to strike terror in the heart of a grown-up.

Relax, says developmental psychology professor Judith Smetana. Things aren’t quite as bad as you think. While conflict between parents and children does increase in adolescence, the torment is largely temporary.

By the time most young people reach their late teens, both the frequency and intensity of conflicts decrease, and typically, the connection to family remains strong.

The general notion that adolescence is a period of storm and stress doesn’t hold up, says Smetana, a professor in the Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology.

“Yes, there are increases in disagreement, but it’s usually in the context of warm, supportive relationships,” she says. “We now know that teens don’t break away from parents. Healthy development is establishing individuality but remaining connected.”

Smetana, the director of Rochester’s Developmental Psychology PhD Program, is at the forefront of research on parent-adolescent relationships, particularly in the areas of conflict and conflict resolution. She also is a pioneer in the field of children’s moral reasoning.

Her work is “absolutely groundbreaking,” says Melanie Killen, professor of human development at the University of Maryland, who has worked with Smetana for more than two decades. “She’s the one who’s charted the way.”

In both her adolescent and preschool studies, Smetana looks at how children and young people make distinctions among rules based on morality, rules based on social convention, and personal issues.

“I’m interested in how adolescents and parents—or how children and parents—draw boundaries between what’s appropriate for parents, adults, society to regulate and what’s up to the individual,” she says. “In studying adolescents, I’m interested in how much authority teens think parents have to regulate those different kinds of issues, whereas in young children I’m interested in how different kinds of rules develop.”

Even young children draw boundaries, such as when a child insists on eating a certain food or wearing a favorite shirt.

“What’s seen as personal expands during adolescence, but it doesn’t start in adolescence,” Smetana says. “At some point there’s a boundary, and you say, ‘No! Nobody has a right to regulate this. It’s up to me.’”

Disagreement over where those boundaries lie—whether parents have the authority to regulate messy rooms, for example, or instant messaging or when to start dating—is a central conflict during adolescence.

“Adolescents and parents don’t agree about that at all,” says Smetana. But she says she was surprised by what she found about where adolescents are coming from in those conflicts. “I thought it would be an argument with parents about whose conventions were important,” she says. “I thought parents would appeal to parent conventions (and) kids would appeal to peer group conventions—‘All my friends are doing it.’”

But Smetana says adolescents aren’t basing their arguments on social conventions or peer group norms. Instead, they’re making claims regarding self and identity.

“Kids were saying ‘My room is my business; if you don’t like it, shut the door.’ Or ‘It’s an expression of who I am.’” Parents, for their part, respond with, “‘No, it’s not your business. I’m responsible for you and no, you can’t stay out as long as you want,’” Smetana says. “It’s really natural that they’re going to disagree about those things.” On more clearly moral issues—issues with consequences for the welfare of others, such as hitting and teasing, or prudential issues, such as the use of illegal drugs, teenagers generally agree that parents have legitimate authority—whether or not they go along with it.

What’s a Parent to Do?

Here are a few suggestions for negotiating the adolescent years from Judith Smetana, based on her research:

  • Keep things in perspective: Disagreements are a normal part of adolescent development as your child negotiates for more autonomy. Don’t take it personally. (Very hostile interactions or very intense conflict can be a warning sign; families might want to seek professional advice.)
  • Children share less and keep more secrets in adolescence. Try to create a trusting, supportive environment in which your child will want to open up to you. Be responsive and willing to listen, but don’t push too hard—teens will talk when they’re ready.
  • If your teen tells you something you have a hard time hearing, take a breath before responding. Try not to be judgmental or critical. If your teen believes you can be accepting, even when she makes mistakes, she might be more willing to talk to you the next time.
  • Nearly all adolescents in the United States experiment with cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana. Very few go on to serious drug or alcohol problems. You may not want your child to experiment, and you should clearly state your opinions, but recognize that adolescent experimentation is a fact of life.
  • Set firm standards. Make rules and expectations clear, and follow up on them. At the same time, be willing to listen and decide when you’re willing to negotiate. Some issues may be non-negotiable for you, but there may be wiggle room on others.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. Figure out what’s important and focus on that.
  • Remember that even when your teen acts like you just lost 100 IQ points, they still love you and look up to you. Don’t withdraw. It’s important for you to be there for them. You’ll get those IQ points back later.

—Hilary Appelman

Smetana’s current research looks at ways in which adolescents use disclosure and secrecy as a way to gain autonomy while avoiding direct conflict. For example, a teenager may tell her parents that she was at a party, but not that there was drinking. Or that there was drinking, but not that she took part in it.

Kids do stop sharing as much with parents during adolescence—and that’s normal, Smetana says. “Parents have to recognize that that’s part of normal autonomy development, and at the same time try to keep all those channels of communication open.”

Many studies have shown a correlation between parents knowing about their children’s activities and better behavior, Smetana says. But while past studies assumed that parental knowledge came from supervision and monitoring, new research by Hakan Stattin and Margaret Kerr of Sweden’s Orebro University indicates that parents get information primarily from what their children voluntarily tell them.

That means it’s not as simple as the public service advertisement, ‘It’s 10 o’clock: Do you know where your kids are?’ Smetana says. “It’s when they come home at 11 o’clock, do you know what happened?”

The new research has created controversy because some people take it to mean that what parents do doesn’t matter.

“Obviously it does,” Smetana says. Parents can’t just push for information and expect to get it; there has to be a history of trust. “If the parent-child relationship isn’t good in the first place, that disclosure will never happen.”

Smetana and other researchers are still exploring how much secrecy is a good thing. “We can say ‘OK, not telling your parents about certain kinds of things is healthy, because it’s good for autonomy development.’ We know that all kids do that to some extent. But when should you be worried?”

“We know that lying is associated with a lot of bad things,” Smetana adds. “But these partial information strategies like changing the topic, or telling part of the story—it’s a little less clear.”

“If your kid’s coming home and telling you all the intimate details of their sexual encounters. . . . I think most parents really don’t want to know that. So there’s something between not knowing at all and knowing every lurid detail.”

Where the lines are drawn on what adolescents claim as personal varies among different cultures, says Smetana, who is part of a new wave of researchers pursuing crosscultural studies. Her study of Mexican-American, Chinese-American, and European-American adolescents in Los Angeles, for example, found that Chinese kids disclosed less to parents than everybody else about everything, while the European-American kids disclosed more, she says.

“All kids claim some areas as personal. But cultures vary on the bandwidth.”

One thing that’s universally true: Parents think they know more about their children than they really do—“and they think they have a right to know more than kids think they do.”

It’s important for parents to keep in mind that conflict is a normal part of adolescent development, Smetana says. Frequency of conflict rises sharply and peaks in early adolescence, around 12 or 13, while the intensity of conflict peaks at about 15 and then declines. Kids are just doing what they need to do: negotiating for more autonomy.

“If you think about what you want for your kid as an adult, you want them to be able to express their point of view and become more independent . . . and that’s what kids are learning in the context of conflict. It’s just really hard as a parent to deal with that.”

Trying to keep a normative perspective can help. “They’re not trying to be rebellious or difficult. They’re just dealing with their own developmental issues. . . . They don’t hate you.”

But Smetana, who has sons ages 17 and 20, acknowledges that keeping that perspective isn’t easy.

“I know with my own kids there’d be some disagreement and they walk away, and they’re fine two minutes later. And I’ll walk around all day long feeling terrible.”

On the bright side, Smetana says her research indicates that conflict in early adolescence generally didn’t affect parent-child relationships five years later, while positive interactions, which were measured separately, were highly associated with the quality of the later relationship.

“So if you’ve established a climate of trust, a positive relationship, that’s really important, because it’s really predictive of what it will be like later,” Smetana says. “The positive endures; the negative does not. That’s a good thing for parents to keep in mind when they’re going, ‘Aaugh, will I ever live through this!’”

Smetana says her research with preschoolers is a good counterpoint to her work with adolescents.

“Teenagers are really verbal and they’re really interesting and they’re also sometimes exasperating, so it’s fun to turn to toddlers who are just so much simpler. It’s a nice balance.”

Adolescents are interviewed, fill out questionnaires, or record daily diaries on the Web, while preschoolers are shown drawings of children doing things like shoving another child, or not sitting in circle at story time. Researchers ask them questions like, “Is it OK to shove? If not, is it a little bit bad or very bad? Would it be OK to shove if the teacher didn’t see?”

Both groups are working out issues of autonomy and boundaries, Smetana says. “That’s part of what I think is really fascinating about both. A lot of things that are happening at 3 and 4 are getting reworked in adolescence.”

Despite a packed speaking and teaching schedule and her current position as secretary of the Society for Research on Child Development, Smetana is readily available to colleagues and students.

“Judi is a wonderful collaborator, and an amazingly good citizen,” says Killen, who was coeditor with Smetana of The Handbook of Moral Development. “She always does 1,000 percent.”

“She’s a great advisor,” adds Julie Grossman ’08 of Rockville, Md., who worked with Smetana on her honors thesis. “She’s busy, but she makes time. She’s always available.”

Smetana’s doctoral work at the University of California at Santa Cruz looked at how women balanced issues of self and morality in their decision making about abortion. When she came to Rochester in 1979, she applied the same theoretical framework to studies of preschoolers’ social rules.

“Then I was teaching adolescence and it seemed to me that the way I was thinking about morality versus social convention was really relevant to this issue of adolescent-parent conflict,” she says.

Smetana, who hopes to write a lay book about parenting with a colleague, has a final word of advice for parents embroiled in battles with their teens and pre-teens over issues like messy rooms.

“Let it be! Don’t sweat the small stuff!”

Then, laughing, she acknowledges she doesn’t always take her own advice.

“My older son was always very neat, but my younger son—his room is such a pigsty, and I have such a hard time with that. His room is awful. I do say things about cleaning up his room—for health reasons, or whatever.

“Sometimes I hear myself and I just go, ‘I can’t believe I just said that!’ But really—the advice is, Figure out what’s important and focus on that.”

Hilary Appelman is a Rochester-based freelance writer.